Richard Goerling, Police Lieutenant; Commander, U.S. Coast Guard Reserve; and Adjunct Faculty, Portland, Oregon, Community College
.S. police professionals work in an increasingly demanding and complex operational, administrative and legal landscape. Many hazards exist in this environment, and navigating these hazards as a police officer is no longer achievable without significant change. It is time for police leaders to collaborate with community stakeholders and find ways to enhance the wellness of their police officers and communities.Police work is stressful. Traditional views on police occupational stress have often been viewed in a negative light. Much of this perspective is due, in large part, to the police institution’s reactive approach to stress management—police agencies typically wait until significant, negative effects of stress manifest in individuals, teams, or the whole organization before actions are taken to mitigate and manage. Police officer wellness requires a shift in organizational approach among police leadership and an ensuing cultural evolution toward resilience and holistic wellness. This article will discuss what this shift might look like and how police and community leaders might consider leading forward to build a police organizational and cultural construct that has resilience (prevention) at its core.
Historically, the American Police Institution (API) has delegated officer wellness to the individual police officer.1 Combine this with little or no wellness intervention programs until officers experience trauma, and you are left with the API’s current, reactive model that has, time and again, demonstrated little ability to prevent the complex, long-term consequences of trauma. Police organizations and their communities must create a culture of resilience and an organizational model that supports resilience in all wellness dimensions: mind, body, and spirit. Training police officers in resiliency skills, providing stronger preventative mental health care, and cultivating a leadership culture of wellness will shift the API toward a preventative model—one of resilience. This new approach will allow police officers to move beyond survival and into a realm where they can thrive.
The positive outcome of a preventative model of resilience will have noticeable effects at the individual police officer level, the organizational level, and throughout the community. Resilient police officers will have a greater capacity for compassion and performance on the job, healthy organizations will nurture leadership capacity from the briefing room to the boardroom, and these positive social forces will strengthen the relationship between the community and its police department, perhaps just one police-citizen encounter at a time.
Resilience is defined nicely by the late Dr. Al Siebert as the “ability to cope well with high levels of ongoing disruptive change; to sustain good health and energy when under constant pressure; to bounce back easily from setbacks; to overcome adversities; to change to a new way of working and living when an old way is no longer possible; and to do all this without acting in dysfunctional or harmful ways.”2
Holistic wellness simply refers to the mind, body, and spirit connectivity. It requires both training and a leadership culture to support wellness of the whole person—physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual.
At the foundation of this culture and organizational model is a holistic approach that includes mindfulness training. Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.”3
The practice of paying attention, of cultivating awareness, is one that strongly resonates with the ethos of the guardian and the life path of the warrior. Guardian ethos encompasses our collective warrior culture in policing and the values and beliefs necessary to nurture and sustain the courage and grace it takes to stand the watch. The life path of the “guardian” (the watchstander of democracy) has an arch from accession to retirement. Thriving across this arch is perhaps too rare as most of police culture frames success in terms of survival. Richard Strozzi-Heckler writes of his work training what he calls the awareness disciplines to U.S. Army Special Forces.4 Police leaders have an opportunity here. Teaching meditation to police officers makes sense, culturally and scientifically. Meditation speaks to the warrior soul and teaches critical skills in self-awareness. From this place, one can expect physical, spiritual, and social fitness to grow.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is a training program that Kabat-Zinn developed three decades ago at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.5 This training program has been adapted to train resilience at the Hillsboro Police Department in Oregon.
Beginning in the summer of 2013, a pilot Mindfulness-Based Resilience Training (MBRT) program was implemented. Through a collaborative research and training partnership with the Hillsboro Stress Reduction Clinic and Pacific University, three separate cohorts of police employees from three different police agencies in the region have been trained in the nine-week MBRT. Research results, which include salivary cortisol testing, are being analyzed. Preliminary research data demonstrate promising outcomes through self-reported improvements in sleep, pain management, emotion regulation, and emotional intelligence.
The collaborative research and training team in Hillsboro has evolved into the Pacific Center for Wellness at Pacific University. This team will continue to research, develop, and deliver mind-body resilience training and mindful leadership training for police professionals. The center invites collaboration with police agencies.
The hope is that this research demonstrates how mindfulness training can develop and nurture resiliency skills, enhance officer performance under acute stress, and improve the outcome of the police-citizen encounter. Mindfulness has been shown to improve the neuroplasticity of the brain and the unconscious resilience that results creates pathways for conscious resilience of hand, heart, and mind.6 This training provides capacity for police officers to respond through trauma and, after a period of adjustment, land stronger than when they started, an ability also known as post-traumatic growth. Mindfulness also builds improved cognitive performance and greater emotion regulation, which are key to the peak performance of a police officer under stress. Finally, the improvements in self-awareness, empathy, and emotion regulation that can be achieved with mindfulness training lend toward more grounded outcomes in police-citizen encounters. While the research strives to test these desired outcomes, much work remains to be done as mindfulness training in policing evolves to meet the unique culture and operational environment of policing.
Mindfulness training promises to nurture the body, mind, and spirit of our police warriors. Research has shown that mindfulness enhances emotion regulation, empathy, cognitive performance, and working memory.7 These are the ingredients for an effective police encounter and a battle-ready, empathic police officer.
The good news is that police occupational stress can have constructive outcomes when responded to positively by the organization. Cultivating resilient police officers and a culture of resilience is possible using mindfulness as a foundation. Shifting from a reactive model to a preventative one is not simple, yet it is an integral part of leadership evolution. The opportunity before us is to lead our culture forward, toward a proactive and preventative paradigm of occupational stress. In this model, we create an environment that allows our employees and communities to not just survive, but to thrive.
Police training, generally, devotes much energy in training concepts of situational awareness. The U.S. legal framework looks at the concept of the totality of the circumstances. Awareness of the landscape (physical, environmental, human, industrial, etc.) is the first factor in staying safe in all emergency response professions. Assessing the behavior of persons confronted by police officers is an equally critical ingredient to officer safety. Mindfulness training is situational awareness “graduate school.” Through greater self-awareness, police officers can learn greater situational awareness and develop the ability to be present, focused, and grounded in the naturally occurring fog where heroes meet crises.♦
“Instead of panicking or returning to business as usual, commit to grounded compassion, pragmatic wisdom, and skillful action. Let awareness be your weapon…Be there for those who have suffered more than we have. Step beyond yourself and be of use to someone. Be courage in uncertainty. Be love in chaos.”8
1“American Police Institution” (API) is a term used by the author to describe the uniformed public safety industry at all levels of U.S. government. It primarily refers to the broad organizational and management culture of this mission-diverse group of police agencies.
2Al Siebert, The Resiliency Advantage: Master Change, Thrive under Pressure, and Bounce Back from Setbacks (San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2005).
3Jon Kabat-Zinn, “Mindfulness-based Interventions in Context: Past, Present and Future,” Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice 10, no. 2 (2003): 145.
4Richard Strozzi-Heckler, In Search of the Warrior Spirit: Teaching Awareness Disciplines to the Green Berets (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2003).
5Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness (New York, NY: Delta Publishing, 1990).
6Elizabeth A. Stanley, “Neuroplasticity, Mind Fitness, and Military Effectiveness,” in Bio-Inspired Innovation and National Security, eds. Robert Armstrong, Mark D. Drapeau, Cheryl A. Loeb, and James J. Valdes (Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 2010), 257–279.
7Amishi P. Jha, Elizabeth A. Stanley, Anastasia Kiyonaga, Ling Wong, and Lois Gelfand, “Examining the Protective Effects of Mindfulness Training on Working Memory Capacity and Affective Experience,” Emotion 10, no. 1 (2010): 54–64.
8Strozzi-Heckler, In Search of the Warrior Spirit, 372.
Please cite as:
Richard Goerling, “The Role of Mindfulness Training in Policing a Democratic Society,” Officer Safety Corner, The Police Chief 81 (April 2014): 10–11.